Bag fee bill meets with resistance in Delaware

 

Shoppers go through the checkout line at Byler’s Market in Dover. *Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

Shoppers go through the checkout line at Byler’s Market in Dover. *Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

DOVER — A bill to add a 5-cent fee per plastic bag at retail stores has received mixed feedback from lawmakers, businesses and citizens.

Legislation filed last year and released from committee earlier this month would expand the state’s plastic bag recycling law, which mandates large businesses create recycling programs allowing customers to return plastic bags. Approved in 2009, the law requires the stores to accept the return of plastic carryout bags, which are then recycled.

Now, in an effort to clean up the environment, legislators from both parties are looking to discourage use of the bags with a proposal designed to target shoppers where it matters.

“We’re trying to change consumer behavior and what’s the best way to do it? Probably through their pocketbook,” main sponsor Rep. Deborah Hudson, R-Hockessin, said in the committee hearing this month.

Should the bill pass, customers would be charged 5 cents for every plastic bag they accept from a store, with the total added to the cost of goods after the shopper is rung up.

At a legislative committee hearing earlier this month, one advocate of legislation discouraging use of plastic bags came dressed in bags. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

At a legislative committee hearing earlier this month, one advocate of legislation discouraging use of plastic bags came dressed in bags. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

The additional charge would go to the store to allow it to make up the cost for having to develop a recycling program.

Businesses would not be allowed to withhold the fee from customers.

The proposal would apply to stores that fall under the current law: those that have at least 7,000 square feet or three locations with at least 3,000 square feet each. Many businesses, including grocery outlets and retail stores, are required to have bag-return bins.

Supporters have railed against bags as a scourge to the environment, while opponents argue the measure would hurt customers and businesses.

During the committee hearing, backers described seeing bags tangled in vegetation, floating through the wind, clogging up ponds.

Rep. W. Charles “Trey” Paradee, D-Cheswold, called plastic bags a “menace” and Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said people must consider “what this planet’s going to look like 50 years from now.”

According to the bill, the vast majority of bags are not recycled, and even when they are, they are slow to break down.

Supporters outnumbered dissenters in the meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee meeting, where both sides made their cases.

“I think that if you could give us a little time — I understand the passion for this and I agree with you 1,000 percent, these bags are a nightmare — but to just go out and do something when we’re on the verge of a comprehensive study of every state agency and all three county governments that have anything remotely to do with trash, I would ask that you consider giving us a little time and we will come back in January with a comprehensive strategy as opposed to a simple bill that does one little thing,” Rep. Richard Collins, R-Millsboro, said.

Businesses and the public weigh in

The Delaware Chamber of Commerce is neutral on the subject because the funds from the bill would “defray” the costs of setting up a recycling program for stores, chamber lobbyist James DeChene said.

He did object to an amendment filed by Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, saying it “guts the purpose of the bill.”

The amendment would change the recipient of the 5-cent fee. Instead of sending all of it to the stores, the proposal would earmark 2 cents for the Delaware Recycling Fund and 3 cents for the Hazardous Substance Cleanup Fund. It would also exempt from the fee individuals who pay with food stamps and would institute a total ban on plastic carryout bags in five years.

Rep. Heffernan said during the committee hearing she does not want to “enrich” retailers at customers’ expenses. Her amendment would

To help the environment, some lawmakers want to add a fee to plastic bags to discourage customers from using them. Pictured are shoppers at Byler’s in Dover. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

To help the environment, some lawmakers want to add a fee to plastic bags to discourage customers from using them. Pictured are shoppers at Byler’s in Dover. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

not lift the burden from businesses and so is likely to face opposition from some supporters of the original legislation.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry, has mobilized against the proposed fee.

“This legislation effectively imposes, for the first time, a sales tax in Delaware that will hurt lower-income Delawareans the most,” Lee Califf, executive director of the bag alliance, said in a statement. “It will also hurt Delaware’s economy, as retailers will no longer benefit from being located in the home of ‘tax-free shopping’ and important manufacturers that were recruited to Delaware will be impacted. The promised environmental benefits are not supported by science or data, making this a bad idea for Delaware.”

In a letter to Rep. Heffernan, Delaware Manufacturing Association Chairman Brian Nixon criticized the legislation as harmful for business and questioned how much it would benefit the environment.

“The purported environmental attributes of this regressive sales tax are grossly overstated,” he said.

On the flip side, the Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club has the bill as its top legislative priority this year, although it is not in favor of sending the money to the state instead of the stores.

Bags currently represent a “hidden cost,” club volunteer and outreach coordinator Stephanie Herron said.

“Everyone is paying it whether they bring a bag or not,” she said. “Externalizing the cost of the bag makes it teachable in that everyone thinks about what they are getting.”

Under the bill, the charge would be optional, Ms. Herron noted, stressing it is not a tax.

Louise Graham loads bags into her car Friday. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

Louise Graham loads bags into her car Friday. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

A bag fee in Washington D.C. went into effect in 2010, and a veto referendum limiting plastic bags in California will be voted on by state residents in November.

A 2015 Washington Post article on the city’s fee notes data on the impact is hard to come by, while organizations focused on recycling and the environment conclude it has been beneficial in reducing bag pollution.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “a de facto statewide ban exists in Hawaii as all of the most populous counties in the state prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout, as well as paper bags containing less than 40 percent recycled material.”

Here, shoppers appear to be divided. While many people had not heard of the idea, some said they would be willing to support it, even though they might be more in favor were the cost 2 or 3 cents rather than 5. Others objected to the bill, saying the cents would add up and hurt lower-class households and large families.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an organization in favor of plastic bag fees or bans, the typical American family uses 1,500 plastic bags per year.

At 5 cents per bag, that’s $75 annually.

Standing outside the Dover Safeway last week after a shopping trip, Jennifer Patterson said she would “definitely try” to bring reusable bags to the store if the legislation passes the General Assembly.

Ms. Patterson, who does recycle, said she sees both sides of the debate.

Loading bags into her car after having forgot her reusable ones, Diane Nicolosi expressed concern how the change would impact people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Although she called the proposal “ridiculous,” she did say she understands the environmental concerns.

Reusable bags “don’t cost that not much, but for someone that doesn’t have a lot of money, it’s a tough thing,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I do think 5 cents is a lot.”

Over at Byler’s, Louise Graham took a similar stance as she moved her purchases into her car.

With about 10 plastic bags with her, she would be paying an extra half-dollar, a sum she would like to avoid.

“I think that you spend enough at the grocery to not have to pay for a darn plastic bag,” Ms. Graham said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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